This is a story about Carla’s journey from a struggling student in elementary school to a successful student in college.
My first interview with Carla Guadalupe Reyna was on April 7, 2015. At the time she was a 20 year-old Brownsville native who was soon to graduate from the University of Texas at Brownsville with a Bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology. Since then, Carla graduated and additionally, has completed the course requirements to become a Physical Education teacher and is currently preparing to take the State exam.
Early Schooling Experiences: Language as an Impediment and as a Resource
Prior to enrolling at Gallegos Elementary School in the Brownsville School District in the third grade, Carla spent three years at another Brownsville elementary school (Pre-K to first grade) where she learned in a total Spanish language environment, and at her second school, another elementary school in Brownsville, for a year and a half. It was in her second school that her education changed drastically since the instructional support in Spanish that she had depended on was completely absent. Instead, the academic language of instruction was completely in English. Without the Spanish language support, Carla struggled to keep up academically and at the same time she strived to learn English. When she enrolled in Gallegos Elementary School midway through the third grade, Carla was behind in her reading and language arts subjects due to her insufficient English language skills. The Spanish language had become merely an oral communication tool in the academic world since she concentrated on learning academic English.
Carla had to re-take the reading portion of the State mandated test in the third and fifth grades. Undoubtedly, the problem was that she didn’t know enough academic English to be successful in tests that were completely in English and at a more advanced level than she had learned thus far. Carla participated in tutorials during school and after school, reading books such as Charlotte’s Web, and completing computerized Accelerated Reading programs. She admits that the tests made her extremely nervous and felt stressful and pressured. Even so, Carla was an excellent student that was often praised by her teachers.
The third grade was especially stressful, recalls Carla. She was in an all-English pull-out program where she and eight others were given lessons on English reading specifically designed to help in passing the State test. Not knowing why she was selected made her anxious, and she had the worst fears about her abilities. She also thought that it was because she and her family spoke only in Spanish at home. She eventually passed all of the State tests.
Middle School and Beyond
While in the sixth grade in Middle School, Carla had an English teacher that was extraordinarily helpful. She consistently tutored Carla even in the seventh and eighth grades when she had other English teachers. The teacher was also the Chess Club coach so Carla continued playing chess, a game that she had learned while at Gallegos Elementary School. Joining the chess club at Gallegos was an after-thought since she had two choices: either sit in the cold gym floor every morning for almost an hour waiting for classes to begin or spend the hour in the library learning and practicing chess. Her decision paid off since she eventually won an award in her first chess tournament in the fifth grade. More interesting was the fact that Carla was able to teach her father how to play chess. They played regularly, and still do, sometimes spending hours on a Saturday morning, which her mother has difficulty understanding. Her father has become an excellent player, and very proud of the fact that he can occasionally beat his daughter, a chess champion.
Carla’s practicing and studying in her English and reading classes were also productive since as she recalls, she passed the reading portion of the State test in Middle School by applying the study techniques she had learned so well. She would read each question twice, then, summarize the story, paying close attention to the main ideas and the details. Then, she would answer the questions. She was very proud of the fact that she received a “commended” score on the reading State test when she was in the eighth grade.
Carla enrolled in Spanish courses as electives in the sixth grade and then again, in the ninth and tenth grades. Eventually, she used her Spanish language abilities to complete the Spanish Advanced Proficiency tests and receive college credit in a high school dual enrollment program (Early College High School). Ironically, what had interfered with her academic advancement in her early schooling became a resource that she later used to reach her goals of completing college-level course work in high school. Learning English was an enormous task and she understands the challenge of the need to continuously improve upon her skills, but she recalls that she could never have given up her Spanish, “how could she?”
Becoming Resourceful: Socialization as a Key Aspect of Academic Success
Carla’s parents were supportive of her education to a substantial extent, but their limited schooling experiences in México and lack of English skills posed barriers in their involvement at Carla’s school. Her parents were concerned over her seemingly slow process in learning English, especially when her older sister and cousins were increasingly communicating in English. Her mother was told by one of her teachers that they should watch more English language movies at home. At Gallegos, Carla felt uncomfortable participating in English language lessons including reading, which affected her academically. However, the Spanish language support that she received from her teachers and her classmates was invaluable in that she was able to acquire knowledge as sometimes needed, and most importantly, become resourceful, both academically and socially. Even though all of her lessons were in English, Carla had access to Spanish throughout her years at Gallegos. Her memories of the attitudes toward her native language by school staff and classmates throughout her education in elementary school were positive. There were no incidences where she was told directly or indirectly that she should not speak Spanish to her classmates, and her teachers often translated the English to Spanish to aid in comprehension. Thus, working cooperatively on academic tasks with her classmates became an important social basis for learning, starting in the second grade when she would solicit help on translating words and phrases from her classmates who excelled in English. Carla engaged in peer support throughout her schooling, but it became even more essential when she was in the Early College High School, and she and her peer support group met regularly. She credits peer support as one of the main resources for her academic success.
Would Carla been as successful in completing high school and earning college credits if she had not attended the Early College High School?
The decision to attend the Early College High School was difficult. She had to make a decision in the eighth grade on whether she wanted to enroll at Rivera HS where many of her friends and her sister were expecting to attend or the Early College HS. She recalls the letter she wrote to the Early College HS explaining her decision to attend, and yet, she wasn’t completely sure whether it was the right decision. After deliberating, she asked her father to mail the letter and afterward, felt it was the best decision.
She has no regrets. She recalls the support she received from her teachers as well as her peers. They worked together, becoming socialized in the academic world of higher education, and by graduation she and her classmates had accumulated a huge chunk of credit semester hours that practically amounted to the first two years of college. Carla had a strong sense that she would eventually pursue a college education. The fact that the Early College HS was a great opportunity that she took advantage facilitated her goal, but she was determined to attend the university and would have done so with or without the Early College HS. However, she can’t speculate how differently it would have been without the support and resources she received at the Early College High School.
Carla was able to reach her academic goals and as a result, the numerous decisions she made can be perceived as the “right” ones. Her entire educational journey clearly shows her work and aspirations as that of an excellent student. Even though she struggled and experienced failure, she was able to persevere and dedicate her life to pursuing her educational goals.
But stories of success are always rounded off with those of students that were not so successful, who “gave up” or were “pushed away” by the insurmountable problems that seemed unresolvable. Clearly, from Carla’s journey we can surmise that the absence of support by teachers and others dooms a struggling student’s chances for succeeding in school. There are many lessons to take away from Carla’s journey. However, an important one is that no matter how difficult the process in learning academic English, one doesn’t have to give up the Spanish language to succeed; Carla’s well-developed bilingual skills attest to that.